John 14:8-17, 25-27
Pentecost is one of the three greatest feasts of the Church. And as with Christmas and Easter, at Pentecost we don’t just look back. Yes, we commemorate the wonderful things that God did in the past, but we also look forward, incorporating God’s story with our story. The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas continues when we participate in the body of Christ, as the Church. The Easter resurrection of Christ continues when we live the resurrection life, signified through our baptism and a transformed way of living. The only way that we are able to participate in the ongoing stories of Christmas and of Easter is by the arrival of the Pentecostal gift of God’s Spirit, through which God’s people are empowered.
The first Pentecost was like this. There were 120 believers gathered together in the large upper room where they were staying in Jerusalem. These first Christians were waiting - waiting for something very special to happen to them; they weren’t quite sure what they were waiting for. They knew they were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, because Jesus had told them ahead of time, but they didn’t know what that would mean. Then it was like a rush of wind into the room - the Holy Spirit coming into their lives – it was like tongues of fire. They felt the power of God inside them, and eventually they left that building and went out into the streets.
They went from street to street and home to home and neighbour to neighbour and nation to nation. It was like a grass fire, flaming across the land on dry fields of grass. It was like a forest fire driven by the wind, in a very dry forest. It was like a fire on an oil slick on the sea, with flames leaping across the water. That’s the way it was in the first century of Christian expansion. The flame of Jesus Christ was spreading across the world.
Pentecost is often called ‘the birthday of the church’, and we’ve brought a cake that we can all share after the service to celebrate. You couldn’t even fit enough candles on this cake to signify the number of years the church has been living, but imagine the light and heat from nearly 2000 candles! Fire is symbolic: Fire is energy; fire is power. Fire is passion for Jesus Christ, and on Pentecost, there was a new quality of fired up energy for Jesus Christ.
On the first day of Pentecost just under 2000 years ago, suddenly there were many different languages spoken by the Galilean disciples. It was clear: the message of Jesus Christ was to go into the entire world, into all the languages of the world, into all the nationalities in the world. Christians were not to remain in Jerusalem but go out into the entire world, proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ in the many different languages of the nations.
In Acts 1:8, Luke writes that Jesus had said to the disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” On that first Pentecost morning, there was a new sense of mission. These men and women sensed a new purpose and a new goal. Their destiny was to announce to the entire world the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Their purpose was absolutely clear to them, and they were united in its urgency.
With the Spirit, there was also a new sense of community. The first Christians shared their possessions. They sold their material goods to help those in need. There was a new sense of inclusive life within this community: sharing problems, sharing each other’s tragedies, sharing resources. They experienced a community of love like they had never experienced before.
There was also a new power within: a new energy to carry out their mission – an energy within them to accomplish their goals. These people had new courage to face the persecutions of a sometimes hostile context. They had a new boldness to speak out about their faith. They had a new passion to stand before family, friends, neighbours, and co-workers and tell the good news of Jesus Christ and his impact on their daily lives.
The apostles would go to a village or town. They would plant a church, and then they would go to a second village or town, and plant a church. They went to a third village or town and planted another church. Before the apostles went onto the next village, they would leave a group of people in that village who were committed to Jesus Christ. The Greek word is ‘laos.’ They were the ‘the laity,’ which means ‘the people.’
The apostles wouldn’t leave the towns or villages until they left people whose hearts and tongues were on fire - these people hadn’t gone to seminary, they hadn’t seen Jesus face to face, they hadn’t talked with him in the flesh. These people were not the Apostles. These were the people of God in each village who then went on to spread the Gospel from house to house, from neighbour to neighbour and friend to friend and family to family.
The whole of the laity, the whole people of God, become inspired and equipped by the Holy Spirit for mission. Not just the twelve, not just the Apostles, and today, not just the ordained! It is the laity, the people of God, who with the power of the Holy Spirit, witness and win souls to Jesus Christ and nurture those souls into maturity. This doesn’t shirk off the responsibilities of the clergy, because clergy are actually laity as well. But this is a reminder of the responsibilities of the non-ordained laity in mission and ministry.
So that’s what happened in that first century. It was a great century of Christian expansion. The Church went to Ephesus, to Rome, and onto Spain within thirty years. From farm to farm, from village to village, town to town. It was spread across the whole known world. It was like a spreading flame.
The year is now 2010, and what has happened to the flame of Jesus Christ? The flame of Jesus Christ is still spreading all over the Earth like wildfire. 33% of the nearly 7 billion people on earth today identify themselves as Christian. That’s one in every three people! The flame of Christianity is spreading across Africa, across Latin America, and across Asia. It has to do with ordinary people, touched by God's Spirit, who understand that ‘nothing kindles fire like fire.’ It has to do with people who understand this not only in their heads but also burn in their hearts with the power of Pentecost. It’s always the laity empowered by the Holy Spirit that makes the difference.
Let’s think about Christianity in England for a moment. Apparently 60% of people in England consider themselves Christian, but only about 2% of those attend church regularly, at least once a month. A Gallup poll asked people around the globe: “Is your religion very important to you?” In this poll, England came out amongst the ranks of the least religious countries alongside many other prosperous developed countries. It is possible for faith to grow cold to the Spirit of Pentecost.
In the book of Revelation, the Church in Ephesus had grown cold and indifferent to God’s purpose in the world. Is it possible for the laity to no longer be on fire by the power of Jesus Christ? Is it possible for a church to gradually become a self-contained unit that has lost all sense of evangelism and mission? The answer to that question is a tragic “yes.”
The primary mission for the first Christians was to go out into the world, teaching, baptizing and making disciples. Christians today must still speak openly and boldly about Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Holy Spirit’s power is the same today as it was 2000 years ago: to give Christians courage, stamina, and boldness, to give us the wisdom to handle the tensions, frustrations and rejection. Because it takes courage to speak to our neighbours and friends and family about Jesus and his impact on our lives.
In relation to the Ascension, Frank has been asking in recent sermons, ‘do we really believe that Jesus is Lord’? St. Paul said in 1 Cor 12:3, that ‘no-one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’. In terms of Pentecost, then, we are challenged to ask ourselves, do we really believe that the Holy Spirit lives in us and will empower us with the strength and courage we need to be his witnesses here in our community, and beyond?
For many of us, one of the most difficult things to do is to talk to somebody about Jesus Christ. We can easily talk with our neighbour about many topics: the weather, gardens, slugs, landscaping, family, pets, politics, or sports. We can talk so easily about so many things, but it’s much more difficult to talk ‘one to one’ about Jesus Christ.
We’re afraid for all kinds of reasons. We don’t want to be pushy about Jesus or about church. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” People know where the house of Jesus Christ is; they can find it; they can drink if they want to. We also don’t want to be identified with the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons dressed in dark suits and ringing the doorbell. We don’t want to be thought of as ‘weird’. We just find it uncomfortable to talk naturally about our faith to another person.
Many of us never learned to talk about Christ because we didn’t really need to. Not so long ago, nearly everyone in the UK went to church. But today, we’re living in a different context; it’s a different culture. Today is a new ball game, and there are huge numbers of people around us that don’t know the truth about Christ and have never been part of the church.
I remember a time before I was ordained, when I was at a barbeque at my neighbour’s house. We were enjoying the warm summer’s evening, when the conversation turned to the field of science. Both my neighbour and I have science backgrounds. Suddenly my neighbour said to me, ‘I don’t know how you can believe in God, since you work in science’. When she said that, all the other guests (none of whom were church-goers) went quiet and turned to listen to my response.
I remember sending up a quick silent prayer for the Spirit to be with me, and then I gave an answer from the heart that somehow held together my belief in God and my appreciation and wonder of scientific discoveries. I said something about how amazing the universe is, and how amazing life on Earth is, and how to me, that points to a creative God. I know that I couldn’t have said what I said, in the way that I said it, without the help of the Spirit. The people listening were thoughtful for a moment, and then the conversation gently and naturally moved on. I knew that God had given me the courage, the inner strength and the right words to speak. And God’s Spirit was planting small seeds in those people.
Many people want to talk about faith and God; they just don’t usually get the opportunity. Reminding ourselves of the power of the Spirit to equip us, we need to start up conversations with people about Jesus. We need to make it known that we are believers. The past religious silence is no longer adequate for this new day. The old wineskins won’t do for the new wine of the Kingdom!
The purpose of Pentecost is to create Pentecostal Christians out of ordinary people like you and me. Before the Spirit came, the believers had been huddling in safety and collected holiness. After the Spirit, the believers were compelled out into the streets. They began to live the life hinted at by Christ. Pentecost is their story and it’s our story, too. The Spirit is a life-changer. I remember telling a friend where I used to work at the university that I was a Christian – she said, ‘well, that’s ok, so long as it doesn’t take over your whole life’!
Well, it SHOULD take over our whole life. With the Holy Spirit, we simply cannot remain bystanders observing the world from a safe distance; with the Holy Spirit, we allow ourselves to be caught up in the very real and risky drama of God in the world.
Lord, may our eyes be opened and our hearts filled as we celebrate your ever-present Spirit and the birth of the Church, and may we welcome the Spirit’s empowerment for the journey ahead as you lead your Church in mission and in ministry. Amen.